Bose & the Nazis

Print edition : June 29, 2012

Subhas Chandra Bose's visit to Germany and the dilemmas posed by his alliance with the Nazis came at a crucial period and cannot be ignored.

Studies on Subhas Chandra Bose's flirtation with the Axis powers, first Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy and next Tojo's Japan, vary a lot in their approach from the denunciatory to the apologetic and hagiographic, so typical of Indian nationalistic writings. Some have emphasised his activities in South-East Asia with its Azad Hind government and the rest, which the brilliant advocate Bhulabhai Desai so ably described at the Indian National Army (INA) trial in the Red Fort in New Delhi to the neglect of the crucial phase in Germany, which preceded it.

Romain Hayes' work, based on massive research, deserves wide readership in India because it is scrupulously fair and richly nuanced. It covers the background to Bose's adventure his outlook on democracy and/differences with Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. All of which explain, but do not justify, why he sought and took help from the fascists. The author's emphasis on Bose's sturdy independence is writ all over the book. He was incapable of being anybody's stooge; only an opportunistic, albeit fierce, nationalist. That said, the author is unsparing in his censures of Bose's moral blindness to the crimes of his deliberately chosen allies.

There is a record of such opportunism and not in India alone. The Irish patriot, Sir Roger Casement, was tried for treason and hanged. The Italian scholar Marzia Casolari has revealed, on the basis of archival evidence, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh's (RSS) links with and admiration for Mussolini's fascist regime (Hindutva's foreign tie-up in the 1930s, Economic & Political Weekly, January 22, 2000. One wonders when her studies will emerge in book form). At one time, Churchill expressed his admiration for Mussolini.

So did Gandhi. Indeed Bose and Gandhi's mistakes fed on each other. Were it not for Gandhi's shabby treatment of Bose forcing an elected Congress president to vacate his office and then treating him with scorn Bose would not have left India in December 1940. Bose left no doubt that the attitude of Gandhi had been central to his leaving India. Maulana Azad noted with some astonishment that Gandhi's admiration for Subhas Bose unconsciously coloured his view about the whole war situation, especially on Cripps' proposals of March 30, 1942, for a settlement of India's political impasse.

Subhas Chandra Bose at Badgastein in Austria.-PICTURES: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

As early as in 1941, Sardar Patel felt convinced that the Allies were going to lose the war (K.M. Munshi; Pilgrimage to Freedom, 1967; page 75). Singapore fell to Japanese arms on February 15 and Rangoon on March 7, 1942. However, on June 22, 1941, Hitler attacked the Soviet Union and on December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbour bringing the unsinkable aircraft carrier, the United States, into the war. Historians are agreed that by mid-June 1942 the limit of Japanese power [was] reached.

Nirad C. Chaudhuri had a poor opinion of Nehru's and Bose's understanding of international affairs. He analysed the 1942 episode in detail in an article in The Times of India of February 28, 1982, aptly titled, They were ignorant of International Politics. This was a reference to the two Cambridge men in the Congress, Nehru and Bose, who were always talking about the international situation. They were also regarded by their political colleagues as expert authorities on international affairs (but) their ideas on international politics were only a projection of their nationalism, which prevented their seeing any international situation for what it was. This is true also of Indian writers on foreign affairs.

The failing persists, still. South Asia has produced world-class economists, historians, scientists and diplomats. It has not produced a single world-class scholar on international affairs. Nationalist self-absorption is no help in scholarly pursuits. The myopic outlook on world affairs was laid bare in all its unreality at a historic meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) in Allahabad from April 27 to May 1, 1942.

Gandhi with Bose at the Haripura Congress in 1938.-

On the first day, Gandhi's draft resolution declared: Britain is incapable of defending India. Japan's quarrel is not with India. She is warring with the British Empire. If India were freed her first step would probably be to negotiate with Japan. Nehru disagreed. Gandhiji's draft is an approach which needs careful consideration. Independence means, among other things, the withdrawal of British troops. It is proper; but has it any meaning, our demanding withdrawal? Nor can they reasonably do it even if they recognise independence. Withdrawal of troops and the whole apparatus of civil administration will create a vacuum which cannot be filled up immediately.

If we said to Japan that her fight was with British imperialism and not us she would say, We are glad the British army is withdrawn; we recognise your independence. But we want certain facilities now. We shall defend you against aggression. We want aerodromes, freedom to pass our troops through your country. This is necessary in self-defence.' They might seize strategic points and proceed to Iraq, etc. The masses won't be touched if only the strategic points are captured. Japan is an imperialist country. Conquest of India is in their plan. If Bapu's approach is accepted we become passive partners of the Axis powers. This approach is contrary to the Congress policy for the last two years and a half. The Allied countries will have a feeling that we are their enemies. The whole background of the draft is one which will inevitably make the world think that we are passively lining up with the Axis powers. The British are asked to withdraw. After the withdrawal we are to negotiate with Japan and possibly come to some terms with her. These terms may include a large measure of civil control by us, a certain measure of military control by them, passage of armies through India, etc. Whether you will like it or not, the exigencies of the war situation will compel them to make India a battleground. In sheer self-defence they cannot afford to keep out. They will walk through the country. You can't stop it by non-violent non-cooperation. Most of the population will not be affected by the march. Individuals may resist in a symbolic way. The Japanese armies will go to Iraq, Persia, etc., throttle China and make the Russian situation more difficult. But the whole thought and background of the draft is one of favouring Japan. It may not be conscious. Three factors influence our decisions in the present emergency: (i) Indian freedom, (ii) sympathy for certain larger causes, (iii) probable outcome of the war; who is going to win? It is Gandhiji's feeling that Japan and Germany will win. This feeling unconsciously governs his decision. The approach in the draft is different from mine (emphasis added throughout). (Congress Responsibility for the Disturbances 1942-43, Government of India, 1943, page 43.)

To his lasting credit, not once did Nehru compromise with the fascists. But he and Azad were too weak to stand up to Gandhi and break with him on the Quit India resolution of August 8, 1942. In truth what Gandhi sought was parleys with the British at the point of his new pistol. Which is why he had sent Madeleine Slade (Mira Ben) to the Viceroy to explain the purport of the Working Committee's resolution. Linlithgow refused to meet her (Munshi; page 82). Gandhi did not expect to be arrested. He told Mahadev Desai, after my last night's speech they will never arrest me (Pyarelal; Mahatma; Volume 1; page 210).

In his adventure, Bose was as naive as Gandhi was in his. He sought to get excised from Mein Kampf Hitler's contemptuous references to Indian nationalists as Asian mountebanks for whom he had no time. Hitler was never against the British Empire. He admired it; what he sought was a division of spheres of interest the land for us, the seas for England. He wanted control of Europe, Britain could keep its colonies, India included .

Bose was woolly-headed. In September 1930, he said the justice, equality, the love, which is the basis of socialism should be combined with the efficiency and the discipline of fascism as it stands in Europe today. British repression in India was worse than in Nazi Germany, he asserted. Unlike Hitler, Mussolini hailed Gandhi as a genius and a saint', admiring as he did his ability to challenge the British Empire. His praise contrasted markedly with Churchill's response to the Mahatma; he had recently described Gandhi as a half-naked' fakir whose actions posed a danger to white people' and refused to meet him in London. Gandhi in turn was impressed by what he saw as Mussolini's care of the poor, his opposition to super-urbanisation, his efforts to bring about coordination between capital and labour' and his passionate love for his people'.

Congress President Bose with Jawaharlal Nehru at Sodepur after they had a long conversation with Gandhi.-

Bose concluded that the Mahatma had rendered India great public service by visiting fascist Italy. Gandhi's encounter with Mussolini nurtured Bose's increasingly favourable impression of the fascist regime, such that when Gandhi returned to Bombay, on December 28, 1931, Bose was there to meet him in person.

The author remarks: What appealed to Bose in totalitarian ideology was the supremacy of the state, planned industrialisation, one-party rule and the suppression of opposition. He also harboured hopes that an ideological synthesis of fascism and Communism would occur first in India. Nothing less than a dictator is needed to put our social customs right,' Bose wrote privately to a friend.

Bose on Gandhi

Bose also argued adamantly in The Indian Struggle that India's salvation could not be achieved through Gandhi's leadership, while nevertheless acknowledging his immense contribution to Indian nationalism. Bose referred to him as a virtual dictator, albeit one who was not as effective as Dictator Stalin, or Il Duce Mussolini or Fuhrer Hitler and who had already committed many blunders. The only concession Bose was willing to make was comparing Gandhi's Salt March of 1930 with Mussolini's March on Rome of 1922. Bose was also critical of Nehru, dismissing him as a loyal follower of the Mahatma.

The author notes: When Germany invaded Holland and Belgium in preparation for the final and decisive push into France in 1940, Bose emphasised the need to utilise the international crisis to India's advantage', claiming freedom was almost within reach'. Not that Gandhi's attitude was any more encouraging: he responded to the defeat of France by advising the British to invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions. Let them take possession of your beautiful island with your many beautiful buildings. You give all these, but neither your souls, nor your minds.' He had already written to the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, stating that Hitler was not as bad as he is portrayed' and that if the British Cabinet desire it, I am prepared to go to Germany to plead for peace'. Humility was not Gandhi's strong point.

In February 1941, Bose shipped out of his family residence in Calcutta. On the morning of April 3, 1941, Orlando Mazzotta', a man who had arrived from Moscow the previous afternoon posing as an Italian diplomat, walked up the steps of the German Foreign Office on the Wilhelmstrasse in Berlin. The Under-Secretary of State, Dr Ernst Woermann, immediately received him and listened carefully as he spoke of the need to establish a government-in-exile and launch a new military offensive. These twin goals Bose pursued relentlessly, unmindful of whether they fitted into Germany's policy or not. He asked his embattled hosts to raise an army of 100,000 to invade India. More, he asked for a treaty guaranteeing India's independence in return for special privileges' after the war. They were not defined. But victory would have deprived him of the power to define them. It would then belong to the power which had invaded India.

The Germans were more realistic than Bose. First, there was concern that recognition of an Indian government presided by Bose would be perceived as German preference for the leftist Forward Bloc' faction within the Congress, which would antagonise Gandhi and Nehru. The Germans were not prepared to do this merely to gain Bose as an ally. Gandhi was rightly recognised as the key force in Indian politics, regardless of the contempt his pacifist ideology aroused in Berlin. As Woermann put it, there would hardly be any direct political advantage for us in elevating Bose as chief of an Indian government', even claiming that this would be met with an unfavourable response in large parts of India'. The impression would be of Bose having been brought' by the Axis powers. Bose was not accepted as India's spokesman; only as a convenient ally.

Bose hoisting the national flag at Vithalnagar.-

The book contains the full text of Bose's Plan for Cooperation between the Axis powers and India dated April 9, 1941, the minutes of his meeting with Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentop on November 29, 1941, and the German-Italian-Japanese Declaration on India which was issued at Bose's insistence, besides a couple of other documents.

It provides a carefully documented account of Bose's exertions in Europe and South-East Asia. The government's revelation on November 10, 1941, of his presence in Europe shook Bose very much as his first broadcast to India on February 28, 1941, stirred many in India. But Nehru was unmoved. On April 12, 1942, he criticised Bose. It is a bad thing psychologically for the Indian masses to think in terms of being liberated by an outside agency. Bose retaliated: It is no less comical that the Indian saviours of British imperialism are the men who regard themselves as international democrats. Nehru hit back with force. Hitler and Japan must go to hell. I shall fight them to the end and this is my policy. I shall also fight Mr Subhas Chandra Bose and his party along with Japan if he comes to India. Mr Bose acted very wrongly. Hitler and Japan represent the reactionary forces and their victory means the victory of the reactionary forces in the world.

Ethical dilemmas

The ethical issues evaded hitherto, which the author raises, must be addressed in any honest discussion. The most troubling aspect of Bose's presence in Nazi Germany is not military or political but rather ethical. His alliance with the most genocidal regime in history poses serious dilemmas precisely because of his popularity and his having made a life-long career of fighting the good cause'. How did a man who started his political career at the feet of Gandhi end up with Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo? Even in the case of Tojo and Mussolini, the gravity of the dilemma pales in comparison to that posed by his association with Hitler and the Nazi leadership. The most disturbing issue, all too often ignored, is that in the many articles, minutes, memorandums, telegrams, letters, plans and broadcasts Bose left behind in Germany, he did not express the slightest concern or sympathy for the millions who died in the concentration camps. Not one of his Berlin wartime associates or colleagues ever quotes him expressing any indignation. Not even when the horrors of Auschwitz and its satellite camps were exposed to the world upon being liberated by Soviet troops in early 1945, revealing publicly for the first time the genocidal nature of the Nazi regime, did Bose react.

History will not ultimately absolve Bose so easily for his alliance with Nazi Germany. The question that inevitably arises is what was his attitude to the greatest act of large-scale industrial mass murder in history, one that was committed in his presence? That Bose chose to be silent is a testimony in itself. Would it have made any difference had he spoken out, if not to the Jews, then at least to his historical legacy? His biographer even implies that Bose wrote a partially anti-Semitic article for Goebbels' newspaper Der Angriff. Interestingly, the article in question has never been found but it certainly did elicit a hostile reaction from The Jewish Chronicle, which denounced Bose as India's Anti-Jewish Quisling'. There seemed to be a precedent for this insensitivity towards the Jewish question'. Already, before the war, Bose had not particularly welcomed attempts to grant Jewish refugees asylum in India. Typically, he got into an argument over this with Nehru who was more open to this at least.

Bose was not exposed, however, to the darker side of the Nazi regime. He lived a protected existence in the luxury of his villa. Of course, nationalism is not, and never will be, an excuse for political apathy and blindness. But in 1945, having placed all his cards on the Axis, Bose would have made a fool of himself by suddenly condemning Germany. It would have put into question his reasons for having gone there in the first place. Bose was a nationalist politician, not a Gandhian idealist. He had chosen to back the Axis and he was merely carrying out that policy to the bitter end.

It is, of course, not for historians to pass moral judgments. Time will do so but it is undeniable that Bose's years in Nazi Germany do not make for the most inspiring chapter of his life. Nevertheless, it was a crucial period which cannot be ignored. As his admirers still do.

In retrospect, some of Nehru's critics wished that Bose or Sardar Patel had led the country instead of Nehru. The record of all three establishes that Nehru was by far superior to them, despite his faults, and Patel or Bose were far inferior to him despite their qualities.